When the Spanish and French arrived in Florida, they were greeted with music and dance performed by Timucuan instrumentalists, Calusa choruses, and Apalachee dancers. Through the following three centuries, music by Native Americans, European adventurers, backwoods pioneers, slaves from Africa and the West Indies, sailors, soldiers, and professional ensembles brought to the cultural life of Florida a rich musical mixture distinctive from that of nearby regions - and heretofore unchronicled by music historians. Oscar Sonneck once wrote that the history of music in the United States is treated as though the writer were sitting behind a New England church window. Such a limited perspective has led Floridians and non-Floridians alike to dismiss the state's musical heritage as beginning and ending with the state song - Stephen Foster's "Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)". By drawing on documents of cultural history largely overlooked by previous scholars of music history, Housewright re-creates the experiences of eye-and-ear witnesses to the many musical voices of Florida, from the first permanent European settlement in 1565 through the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Housewright enlivens the text with musical examples, some of which have never been published, including Seminole songs, Minorcan ballads, seafarers' shanties, Huguenot hymns, fiddle tunes from the Bahamas and the Carolinas, Spanish dances, military marches, spirituals, work chants, folk songs, and Key West hornpipes. Florida's settlers sang and played songs from their old homes and added new verses and variations reflecting their new lives. Of special significance is the treatment of Native American music and dance. In 1566, more than 500 Calusa girls, in groups of 50, sang for Spanish "adelantado" Pedro Memendez. Centuries later, Florida's Seminoles performed elaborately choreographed dances to the rhythm of water drums - kettles filled with water and covered with buckskin. Although aboriginal musical culture was described in detail by the Europeans who encountered it in Florida (where European exploration and settlement preceded that of other parts of North America), historians have rarely focused on the documentary evidence of Florida's indigenous music.